“Left turn!” hollers the drill sergeant to his new recruits.
Private Smith begins to turn right, but catches his mistake as he notices the other recruits turning in the correct manner. He manages, although a bit clumsily, to end up turning left.
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
“I’m so glad to hear that, boy!” shouts the drill sergeant. “Now listen-up you stupid maggot! If I order you to turn left, you turn left! Do you got that, boy?!”
Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
“If I catch you turning right again when I order you to turn left I’m going to have you scrubbing the latrine with a toothbrush for a week. Do you got that, boy?!”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!”
In the above scenario, we see an example of a sergeant providing criticism, and as he does so, he shouts, insults and threatens Private Smith. The army leadership believes that for this type of situation this style of providing negative criticism is helpful.
How does the army’s views on providing negative criticism compare to mine?
Providing Negative Criticism: Comparing My Approach with that of the Army’s
Regular readers of this blog know that I have presented a post titled, “Providing Negative Criticism: Five Levels of Maturity.” If you check that post out, you will see that the sergeant’s style appears to most closely match the level 3 description, which is as follows:
3. The criticizer clearly states the criticism with enough detail so the criticized person, if he or she wills, can improve the behavior, idea, or appearance, but couples it with glares, insults, shouts, or threats that are not about bodily harm.
Here’s an example of a style of providing negative criticism that matches level 3:
A level 4 style of providing criticism, that is, one level more mature than level 3, is described as:
4. The criticizer states the criticism without bodily attacks, damaging property, glares, insults, threats, or shouts, and with enough details so that the criticized person, if he or she wills, can improve the behavior, idea, or appearance. If the person receiving the criticism becomes defensive or angry, the criticizer empathizes without returning glares, insults, threats, or shouts.
Here’s an example of a level 4 style of providing negative criticism:
You are not likely to see anything that looks like a level 4 style of providing negative criticism coming out of a drill sergeant’s mouth during a training situation if he or she is speaking to a private.
And so, it looks like my level 5 model for providing negative criticism runs counter to the army’s view, at least in some situations. But before we conclude this, let’s first take a quick look at how a level 5 style is described:
5. When the criticizer provides criticism, he or she does so in a manner very similar to a level four response, but beforehand, the criticizer considers the person who is the target of the criticism, and the situation that he or she is in. As a result of such considerations, the criticizer may decide to alter the criticism.
As we can see, people who provide criticism in a manner consistent with level 5 are apt to do so in a manner that is very similar to the level 4 description. However, before they actually provide the criticism, they consider the person who is the target of the criticism, and the situation that he or she is in.
In this regard, I think it’s worthwhile to point out that as tough as sergeants may be on privates, they act very differently when speaking to someone who has a higher military rank, such as a lieutenant or general.
That is, sergeants first consider who they are speaking to before deciding on how they will provide negative criticism. This is one of the hallmarks of a person who tends to provide negative criticism in a manner that is consistent with level 5.
The Army’s Reasons for Supporting the Drill Sergeant’s Style of Providing Negative Criticism
The army’s leadership believes that those who hold a higher military rank are better qualified to make tough military decisions than those who hold a lower rank. They based this belief on their process for selecting who is invited to get training for a higher rank, the quality of the training that is provided, and the fact that only those who successfully complete the training are promoted. Those who do not perform well after they are promoted are demoted.
In a number of military situations, quick decisions are necessary to achieve military objectives while minimizing the number of casualties. If platoon leaders see enemy troops rapidly advancing, with their guns blasting and bombs going off, there simply is not a lot of time to discuss how to respond. Those with the most training for dealing with this situation rapidly cry out orders and those with a lower rank rapidly obey.
Now, with all of the gun firing and bombs going off, military leaders are probably going to shout out their orders to be heard. If some of the privates suddenly feel offended because their leader has yelled at them in a tone of voice that strikes them as unfair criticism, without proper training perhaps they might start yelling back, “How dare you talk that way to me!” Perhaps they might even physically attack the leader for the perceived insult. Such actions would seriously delay the carrying out of orders and thereby risk the military objectives and the lives of the soldiers.
During battles, there are times when even the best trained personnel may become irritable. Perhaps a captain might have lost a soldier she was very close to. If the captain, in her irritable state, was to slip up and accidentally speak to someone who is at a lower rank with a tone of voice that seems a bit disrespectful, would valuable time be lost because of an argument over the perceived insult? To avoid wasting time on these types of arguments, the army leaders have come to support training soldiers to respond immediately to orders even if it comes with criticism that might not be viewed as ideal in more typical situations. I think their position is reasonable.
Applying a Drill Sergeant’s Style of Negative Criticism to Situations Beyond the Military
Many people who have been in the army, having experienced basic training, come to believe that what worked well in the army should work just as well in all other situations. And so they begin to provide negative criticism in a style that matches that of a drill sergeant.
Some parents try this with their kids, and when the kids are young it often seems to work. But too often the drill sergeant approach leads to a building up of bitter resentment. Some teenagers end up running away from home, while others essentially end their relationships with their parents as soon as they are old enough to live on their own.
I know someone who was given the job to coach a women’s college basketball team. He had in the past, coached a boys college team and found the drill sergeant approach had worked, in his estimation, fairly well. Occasionally a good player would quit the team, but he felt that this was just the cost of maintaining good discipline. But when he tried the same technique with the women’s team, more than half quit. In order to field any team at all, he had to go to the women who had quit and apologize. In the end, he found that there were alternative ways to provide negative criticism in his new situation that worked much better for him. The incident reminds me of a great scene in the movie, “A League of Their Own.”
In the army, if someone thinks about quitting, there are very serious consequences. The army can put the quitter in prison for a time, give him or her a dishonorable discharge, etc. Moreover, there are a number of positives for hanging in there even under the most trying of circumstances. There is the honor that comes from helping your country, a military salary, VA benefits, etc. When we raise children or coach a team, the consequences for quitting or staying in the relationship are very different.
And so, for those who think it makes a great deal of sense to use a drill sergeant’s approach for providing negative criticism in non-military situations, I urge caution. People have strong desires to be liked and to escape from situations in which someone seeks to interfere with their freedom to make their own decisions. A drill sergeant’s approach runs counter to these desires. It is only in rare situations where rapid action is required, the available leadership is well trained, and other desires are so strong that shouting, insults and threats may make sense.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.